Monday, June 30, 2003

Frank Rich's view of Americans

Freedom News Service

One of this country’s most prominent newspaper columnists is Frank Rich of The New York Times. While the Times has taken a few hits on its reputation recently, Rich is not among those who endured criticism. Rich is not directly associated with the Times' recent controversy because he writes columns. And Times’ columnists are often treated as public philosophers par excellence.
In his June 8 column, in the Arts & Leisure section, Rich began with the following: "Here is how desperate Americans are to be on TV ..." He goes on to note that many people line up on various locations across the country where they expect television cameras to get a glimpse of them. The 15 (or fewer) minutes of fame syndrome is, of course, old hat now, but never mind that for the moment. Columnists, including yours truly, do not shy from repeating themselves – it was George Orwell who is reported to have said, "The first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious."
What is remarkable about Rich’s statement is how unself-consciously it assumes that what characterizes some publicity-hungry folks across America is, actually, characteristic of Americans as such. He does not say "Here’s how desperate some Americans are to be on TV." No, it is Americans who are desperate to be on TV.
Well, I have to admit that now and then I like being on TV – mostly if I have something of value to say, as I did when John Stossel was kind enough to have me on one of his special programs on ABC and when back in 1982 I had the privilege of being on William F. Buckley Jr.’s "Firing Line" on PBS. But would I wait four hours to have a camera get a glimpse of me standing outside some studio? No, I wouldn’t, nor would, I seriously suspect, millions of my fellow Americans. It takes desperation, indeed, to go to such lengths for so little.
Rich, however, uses the mere existence of a few thousand Americans eager to be on TV to jump to the conclusion – or carelessly suggestion – that it is Americans, all of them, who are desperate to be on TV. Why would a columnist from The New York Times allow himself to say such an evidently silly thing?
I do not read minds, but one can make inferences about people’s general thinking from reading and listening to what they say in various circumstances. My suggestion is that Rich has a very low opinion of Americans as Americans. In short, he doesn’t much like Americans just in their role of being Americans. This shows from his willingness to think such silly things about them all, even while it is clear that only a small fraction of them seem to be silly as he claims all are (which isn’t all that bad a thing, in any case). It is this bad opinion of Americans as Americans – that is, as citizens of the United States – that would allow him to throw elementary caution and logic to the winds and make an assertion smearing them all with the silliness that is true at most of a fraction of them.
Now people often generalize on the basis of a little bit of evidence, but this makes sense only when the little bit of evidence is representative. So, if one goes to Italy and finds that the several dozens of Italians one meets all speak Italian, it is safe to conclude that in that land Italian is spoken even without having met everyone there.
Rich, however, had no such representative sample at his disposal, quite the opposite. He was considering only people who could perhaps be said to be desperate for some kind of minor fame (And, actually, what is so terrible about that? Taken individually, most of us spend much time on stuff others consider utterly silly.). And on that basis he was willing to leap to the view that it is Americans who are desperate to be on TV.
So, what of it? Well, it goes to show – or at least to suggest – that one of the nation's most prominent columnists has it in for Americans. His willingness to think badly of them is evidence of that. Which is sad. Maybe it’s time for The New York Times to select a columnist who isn't so hostile to his own country.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at

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